Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone released his first novel in 2012, titled Three Parts Dead. It was immediately received with critical acclaim and became a bit of a hit with the blogosphere and it’s easy to see why—well-rounded characters, a black female lead who is actually represented on the cover, a tightly plotted mystery, and solid prose. His second novel, Two Serpents Rise, was arguably even better, developing the main character, Caleb Altemoc, into a much more interesting protagonist than Thee Parts Dead’s Tara.

This year, in the last month, Gladstone released his third novel, which is also the third installment in his Craft Sequence series of novels. Like the previous novels, the story follows two new protagonists; however, three characters, Ms. Kevarian, Cat, and Teo from Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise return to play supporting roles. The Craft Sequence novels are very much a love it or hate it series—thus far, all three novels have functioned on taking typical tropes associated with urban and epic fantasy and combining them with legal thriller plots, the setting itself serving as a subtle satire of rampant 21st century American capitalism. Full Fathom Five does nothing to change this.

Then again, why should it? The formula isn’t played out yet, so there’s nothing wrong with following it again.

The protagonists of this novel are Kai, a priest for the island Kavekana’s Order that specializes in creating idols to replace their gods who left to fight in the God Wars; and Izza, a girl foreign to the island who’s pretty much grown up there and on the streets with her band of kids like Nick and Ivy. The plot is difficult to explain without spoilers, so I won’t bother even trying. Just look up the synopsis online.

The prose of the novel is typical Max Gladstone prose—short and clipped sentences, often mimicking the character’s thought style. The overuse of fragments often got on my nerves, but that’s more of a stylistic choice than a legitimate error. The rest of the prose functions very well; it’s just got enough detail and vivid imagery to give the novel a cinematic feel, while not being so elaborate it gets overly flowery. That’s a balance that shows that even though Gladstone is still growing as a writer, he’s learned enough to develop a style that hits a sweet spot many a writer would envy.

As with his previous novels, the characters of this novel have insightful and thought-provoking discussions about their religious beliefs. Though the pantheons and idols that exist in the Craft Sequence are mainly imitations of gods of ancient mythology, they come to life enough in this story that the theological debates between believers and skeptics feels not preachy but a nuanced and balanced portrayal.

Diversity has always played a role in the Craft Sequence and this continues in Full Fathom Five: both Kai and Izza are women of color, described in ways that don’t make their entire characters about their races while he also makes it explicit enough that the only way a reader could be convinced they’re white is if they weren’t paying attention (like with the infamous Rue episode). Also, LGBTQ gets some representation: Kai admits at the beginning of the story that as a priest she remade her body, insisting her original body wasn’t right because it was a man’s; Teo references her relationship with her girlfriend from the previous novel.

I’m a character reader myself, so what made this novel so special for me were the eclectic and entertaining personalities of the characters. My favorite was Kai—she’s practical and conflicted; honest but tends to hide things out of pride or thinking she’s going to play the hero. Izza worked very well as a foil to Kai, once they met each other (they mainly tell their chapters from their own third-person limited perspective, making the chapters short). Even side characters like Edmond Margot or Mako prove to have their own unique quirks and back-stories.

When compared to his previous novels, Full Fathom Five certainly holds its own. It’s fun, thought-provoking, and an extremely well-told tale. In terms of the fantasy genre for this year, it’s easily one of the best entries thus far. And as a novel in its own right, it’s simply fantastic. This is not to say it’s for everyone—Gladstone’s style may irk you, the pacing is pretty slow for the first two-hundred pages, and his stories certainly follow a formula. But for what it’s trying to do, it more than succeeds.

Score: 4.5/5

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